Hopewell’s Wu takes the long view on Hong Kong, China & the world

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Sir Gordon Wu digs deep into his decades of experience as one of Asia's great infrastructure pioneers to offer his insights into the road ahead for the Greater Bay Area


Sir Gordon Wu graduated from Princeton with a degree in engineering, returning home to Hong Kong to help run the family’s taxi empire before putting his ivy-league education to good use in construction.

He founded Hopewell in the early 1960s, taking the group public on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 1972. Wu and his team pioneered new methods of construction and financing for groundbreaking transport and power projects in China, including the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Superhighway and Shajiao B and C power stations.

Wu speaking at the July 3 AmCham presentation. Behind him a photograph showing AmCham's own first tour of Shenzhen in 1979 ... prior to the SEZ's existence. Photo: Margaret Loo


At a sprightly 83, Sir Gordon Wu knows how to play his audience, scoring rounds of laughter with his trademark quips and home-spun common sense that over the decades have marked the Hong Kong infrastructure tycoon as a plain-talking scourge of lazy thinkers and purveyors of glib solutions.

Take his views on the recently opened Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge – a project that must be both a source of chagrin as well as pride: it was, after all, his brainchild, but one that didn’t turn out quite as he had envisioned.
 
“In 1983, I said Hong Kong needs a bridge to connect Zhuhai and Macau… after 1997 I still pushed, and ultimately it was built. But the bureaucrats in Hong Kong said, ‘We don’t want that number of cars on that bridge,’ … very fortunately I was not an investor, otherwise I would have declared bankruptcy.

“They listened to the consultants,” he said, getting set to skewer one of his favorite targets. “The Hong Kong government is a government of the consultants, by the consultants, and for the consultants.”

Or his views on recent political tensions boiling over in Hong Kong? People can be “like the Red Guards, and go into the street and exercise mob rule and say, ‘Oh, we want to be independent.’

“Being independent is really easy,” he said. But “with no border crossings with the PRC … I don’t think Hong Kong will be able to survive.”

The city’s prosperity today was built in lockstep with China’s economic opening, and that’s a fact that Hong Kong people need to come to terms with, Wu told a sold-out AmCham luncheon event on July 3. “We’ve got to sustain economic integration with the Greater Bay Area. This is our future, whether we like it or not.”

Which is not to say Hong Kong should simply surrender its political system or treasured freedoms. “You’ve got to respect their political system and don’t try to impose our system on them,” he said, but at the same time, “we don’t want them to impose their system of us.”

But in order to maintain “one country, two systems” Hong Kong must develop mutual respect and understanding with the PRC. Back in the 1980s, When Beijing was negotiating the handover arrangements, China needed Hong Kong to aid the country’s development, Wu said. “Now they don’t need Hong Kong really, so it’s for us in Hong Kong to identify the opportunity.

“If we can do that, then we can ask the Hong Kong government to really address the internal problem of how to improve our housing, how to improve our education levels, how to achieve technological advances.” 

The Hong Kong government is a government of the consultants, by the consultants, and for the consultants

The recent demonstrations in Hong Kong showed widespread disenchantment after 22 years of life under the Special Administrative Region government, and Wu said it was reasonable to think that much of the anger was caused by deep-seated inequalities in society. 

If there is “too much money going to too few people, that will cause social unrest,” he said. “In Hong Kong, yes we have the wealth, but where is the wealth concentrated? It’s on the government and also landowners. I must declare an interest: I am one of them.” 

Describing himself as a “very practical guy,” Wu warned that Hong Kong’s youth were focusing on political issues and neglecting the commercial and trading skills that have driven the city’s prosperity.

“China and the Greater Bay Area will march on. They are not going to listen to Hong Kong,” said Wu, who was speaking as part of AmCham’s GBA Insight Series. “It’s for Hong Kong to say, ‘Well, we want to be with you on that train wherever you want to go.’ And we identify opportunities.” 

Wu said China’s development is gradually moving away from hard infrastructure. “In 40 years, they have built more bridges than America has done in 200,” he said. “What they need is the software, the software infrastructure… the rule of law, education, medical ... these are the things China will need.” 

Asked where he would invest if he were handed a billion dollars, Wu’s swift riposte – “Well, a billion dollars is not what it used to be” – drew more laughter from the audience. Seriously though: The engineer who spent his career pioneering ever more inventive ways to pour concrete said he would probably be busy building “nice medical facilities” in China.

“You know, when people have money they don’t want to die and they are willing to pay for their medical services.”

And Hong Kong still has much it can offer China in services such as law, education and medicine. Universal medical coverage, for example, has resulted in high levels of service and a concentration of skilled professionals in the city. There is a chasm between the standard of care in Hong Kong and that over the border in Mainland China, he said. 

“In Hong Kong, we do have a lot of world-class achievements. Why don’t the young people ... use this expertise and apply it to China?”

Wu’s long-term perspective on Hong Kong’s economic trajectory makes clear that while the city prospered in the past because of its role as British colonial entrepot and as a hub for global businesses, its modern-day prosperity has really been down to the sustained economic boom in its giant neighbor’s economy. Between 1978 – when Deng embarked on his reforms – and 2017, America’s GDP expanded ninefold, less than half the pace of Hong Kong’s growth. China’s, starting from a lower base, has ballooned by 70 times.

Chart showing China, HK GDP per capita from 1960-2018

And Wu said he saw no reason for that to end anytime soon.

“It will keep on growing because their internal market is so huge,” he said. “Can you imagine US$9,000 per head and the internal consumption?”

And not even a trade war with “Trumpist” America will derail the long-term prospects.

“It's a big, big, big China… the momentum will carry them. They have tasted the honey and they will never go back to the days of the Cultural Revolution or the commune,” Wu said.